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How the legacy of an Osage icon became wrapped up in a legal saga

A portrait of Lillie Morrell Burkhart hangs in her former home, which is now known as the White Hair Memorial.
Shane Brown
A portrait of Lillie Morrell Burkhart hangs in her former home, which is now known as the White Hair Memorial.

Lillie Morrell Burkhart was a wealthy Osage woman living near Ralston, Oklahoma in Osage County in the early 20th century. When she passed away in 1967, she had a will that clearly laid out her wishes: her home is to be kept as a shrine to her ancestor Chief White Hair. She left her land, her country house and her two headrights to the Oklahoma Historical Society.

In KOSU’s third story in a series about her legacy, what would happen to that home and everything inside it would be at the center of a lengthy court battle involving relatives who were upset that Osage wealth would be leaving Osage hands once again.

When you walk into Lillie Morell Burkhart's Country Home, the first thing you notice are the vaulted ceilings. Tara Damron, the director at White Hair Memorial, said Lillie saw that on her travels overseas and liked it.

"She went somewhere, saw it, liked it, and then, you know, was like, 'I want to do this at my home,” Damron said.

The ruby red crystal light fixtures that hang over a large table and bookend a fancy picture of Lillie on the wall also stand out and are original to the home.

An ornate light fixture inside the White Hair Memorial in Osage County.
Shane Brown
An ornate light fixture inside the White Hair Memorial in Osage County.

All of Lillie’s furniture came from Europe. In the inventory in her probate files, the list is full of velvet love seats, four poster beds, crystal, china and silver. She would see things she wanted from her travels overseas and have it sent back to Fairfax on a train. After all, she was a wealthy Osage woman who lived life on her own terms, and she liked nice things.

But, today, none of the furniture remains. Hanging on the wall of each room are pictures of the four poster beds, the marble tables, rugs and velvet curtains that used to be there.

"Most of the furnishings were sold by auction by Ernest and Byron Burkhart," Damron said.

That’s Ernest Burkhart, a villain at the center of the Killers of the Flower Moon story, and his brother, who also has been implicated in killings of Osage people for their wealth.

Lillie married Byron Burkhart in 1936, and they were together until she divorced him in 1961. He continued to live with her until she died. And, when she did die from natural causes — he and his brother Ernest, who was convicted for his part in the murders, lived in Lillie's home — although Ernest did not live in her home while she was alive.

However, there is reporting that Ernest burglarized Lillie's garage apartment in 1940 and stole more than $7,000 worth of jewelry and silver.

Damron says Lillie left Byron some land and farm equipment, but he was mad he didn't get her headrights, the house and the rest of the property.

"All of her household furnishings, everything — they set it out in the front yard — it's horrifying, you know, because it was all her stuff," Damron said.

Everyone I've talked to for this story has the same questions about Byron Burkhart:

"I don't know why she married him, but she did," Damron explained

She's not here to answer that for us, because that's what a lot of people were like-why did she marry him?"

Lillie isn't here to answer those questions.

Billie Ponca, Lillie's great niece, says she doesn't know either. But she says Byron was always friendly to her — even after Lillie passed away. She did hear he was involved in the murders, but this was still at a time when no one wanted to talk about what happened-it was still way too painful for a community that was still traumatized.

"I didn't really hear anything about the murders other than I can remember hearing that he was involved," Ponca said.

“So what does that mean to a kid that doesn't really know anything about it? But he was involved in it, and it was bad."

Ponca made a point to read the FBI files when she was hired to work out the White Hair Memorial. She learned about Byron's involvement and was horrified.

And for her part, Lillie wasn't unaware of how Osage County courts operated when it came to wealthy Osages — so, she divorced Byron and changed her will.

"She was trying to protect her headright and her land from the system that is Osage County and the local probate courts," Damron said, referring to how local courts controlled the outcome of many estates in Osage County with outcomes that were not favorable to Osage people.

Despite that, Byron claimed he was Lillie's common law husband and argued in court that he deserved a monthly allowance from her estate after she passed away.

He was successful and in 1968, he drew a salary of $250 per month. Adjusted for inflation, that's about the salary of an early career Oklahoma teacher.

After the estate was settled in 1984, Dan Swan, who was hired as the first director of the White Hair Memorial, remembers handing both brothers a notice from the Sheriff's office.

"He basically forced us to evict him. He just wasn't going to go," Swan recalls. He said that both brothers pumped him for information about what would happen and scoffed when he told them it would be a museum.

There is one thing that did remain — Lillie's collection of Osage ribbon work, finger weaving, broadcloth blankets, roaches, silver brooches and a wedding coat and hat.

It's all safely stored in museum-grade boxes in a bedroom off the main hallway along with numerous recordings of In Losch Ka dances going back to the 1980s photos of Lillie and thousands and thousands of pages of documents relating to Osage history and genealogy.

Damron says Lillie collected these material cultural items from the 1920s until the 1960s, and shows Osage's love of bright colors.

Since KOSU started reporting this story, there has been some development.

The Oklahoma Historical Society met with the Osage Nation to discuss transferring Lillie's headrights back to the Nation. But, it’s unclear if that can even happen. There is no law in place to make that process easier and there have been some questions about how it would work within the Osage Nation.

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Allison Herrera is a radio and print journalist who's worked for PRX's The World, Colorado Public Radio as the climate and environment editor and as a freelance reporter for High Country News’ Indigenous Affairs desk.
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